Your heart is a muscle, and muscles need exercise to stay fit – but what you eat can have a huge impact on the health of your body, inside and out. For example, you’ve probably heard of cholesterol, and may know that ‘high cholesterol’ is something to avoid.
But the truth is, cholesterol is essential: it helps hold our cells together and is vital in the production of vitamin D and many hormones, including sex hormones. Without it, none of us would be here. Cholesterol is carried around the body by proteins – and when cholesterol and proteins are combined, they’re called lipoproteins:
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) carries cholesterol to the cells that need it.
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL) carries used cholesterol away from the cells and back to the liver to be broken down.
The problems start when there is too much LDL in the blood. LDL molecules are absorbed by macrophages (a kind of white blood cell), which swell up and become foam-like cells. These stick to the artery walls and clog them … and that’s what causes many heart problems.
Keeping cholesterol at a healthy level
To help keep your cholesterol levels in the right zone, avoid trans fats, which are found in hydrogenated fats and oils: you’ll find these listed in the ingredients panel on most foods. They increase your levels of LDL, and also actively lower your levels of HDL. It’s not difficult to avoid trans fats, they’re most commonly found in processed foods.
Lowering your salt intake is good for your heart. High salt diets are associated with high blood pressure, which puts extra strain on that all-important muscle.
Eating too much of any fat is bad for you as obesity is a factor in heart disease. Saturated fats are found in animal products (meat, eggs, dairy) and foods containing them, and the government’s recommended maximum daily intake is 30g for men, 20g for women. Look for the traffic light system on packaging, and eat foods lower in fat.
It’s generally accepted that a Mediterranean-style diet is one of healthiest. It means eating more fresh fruit, vegetables, bread, wholegrains and fish, while cutting down on meat and dairy consumption: avoiding butter and using olive oil as an alternative. Steam, poach, bake, microwave or stir-fry food instead of frying or roasting in fat. Flavour using spices, herbs and lemon juice rather than using dairy-based sauces that tend to be high in fat.
What else can I do to keep my heart healthy?
As well as a healthy diet, exercise is important. If you’re not used to exercising, have a look at our article How can I get fitter this year? Smoking is also a major contributor to heart disease, so think about quitting the habit too. For tips to quit, read our article Getting help to quit the smoking habit this year.